The Students Are Watching || A Review

Although school is over for my students, it isn’t over for me. I am doing what I have come to affectionately term “New Teacher Boot Camp.” Its official title is “Collegiate School Teaching Institute” and is a two week program (weekends included!) which focuses on skills for new teachers, as well as getting new teachers acclimated with aspects of teaching particular to independent schools (such as comment writing, for example).

Before attending the boot camp, each of the participants was asked to read and review Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer’s book The Students are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract. My review — surely still with typos and needing a good proofreading — is below the fold, for anyone who is interested. The one thing I didn’t put in the review, but which I couldn’t help but notice as I was reading this book, was how well my school conforms to the Sizers’ view of a good school. The thoughtful and reflective community (we often — sometimes to my chagrin because we do it too much or badly — talk about the core values of the school and how we can enact them), the attention to making each student feel like they are part of the community and respected, the emphasis on community norms and collective decision making (such as having a student-faculty judiciary committee or inviting students to be on hiring committees), the knowledge that each student has an individual learning style (the learning specialists are central to the running of the school and not a peripheral department; we write narrative comments on each student twice a year), and so on and so forth. No one would claim that it is a perfect school. But at least in terms of how the Sizer’s see things, I think they wouldn’t bite their thumbs at us.

Again, review after the jump. My opinion of the book below is very likely (read: almost certainly) going to change after I get to discuss this with the other participants in the program.

Book Review of Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer, The Students are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999)

The Sizers have a noble aim in The Students are Watching: they want to bring attention to the idea that schools are not merely places where nameless faces learn state curricular standards – about covalent bonds and consonance – but also a place where students learn to belong to a thoughtful community and become moral beings. The implicit charge is that schools need to be designed and operated to consciously embrace this idea – through mechanisms such as the curriculum, community norms, and teachers’ actions. Students pick up not only curricular knowledge, but learn values from seeing an empty library, having a teacher not open a door for them, and by implicitly told they are not trusted to go to the bathroom without a pass.

Before launching into a critical analysis, it would be beneficial to do a cursory overview of the structure of the book. There are six main chapters, each focusing around one analytic term that the authors feel encapsulate an important aspect of schooling: modeling, grappling, bluffing, sorting, shoving, and fearing. These gerunds are interrogated, and represent more than their colloquial definition. I will attempt to outline the six arguments below.


  1. In order for a school to be a place where all constituents are working together, there needs to be a constant dialogue of values and these values need to be modeled in everything about the school. There will necessarily be a constant tension between the individual and the community, and people buying into a collective culture with enough wiggle room for individuality is key.
  2. Students should be constantly engaging in grappling in the formal curriculum, which means that students are buying into their own education, that they critically think about their own work, and that they take existing scholarship and ideas further. Students should not be thought as mere receptacles of information, but as capable beings who can engage with ideas and generate new information.
  3. Both students and teachers can engage in a performance of bluffing – which is akin to putting on an act or taking up an “artful demeanor” (43). This often arises when one is overburdened and at a loss for time to grapple.
  4. Sorting is a classification system which is done to students – by cliques in the lunchroom, by test scores, by tracking. Some sorting is necessary and useful, but a lot of the sorting that is done in schools is harmful because it replaces the individual with a category. “Honors” and “regular” is one that the Sizers rail against (72) because students begin to perceive themselves in a certain way and act accordingly. Sorting in a school needs to be flexible, individual, respectful, and well-thought out.
  5. Shoving means both physical shoving, but also metaphorical shoving (such as dirty jokes or rudeness). At the heart, shoving is about community norms, boundaries, and shifting cultural lines. To deal with shoving, a school community needs to have an open and thoughtful dialogue about procedures which give respect to every member (90). Cultural and social contexts when deciding boundaries and community values are central to the discussion about shoving.
  6. Lastly, fearing is often used in schools as a motivational factor – by teachers and administrators. What schools need to do is recognize that not all fear is bad, but it should be used as part of a repertoire of pedagogical techniques. It works for some students, but not all, and a better solution is to foster “unanxious expectation.” To do this requires a teacher paying attention to what works for each student and to individualize.

As a critical work, the book – at least to this reader – is extraordinarily muddled. Important conclusions are mixed in with grand pronouncements (“Capitalist society depends on bluffing” (45) and “We all fear the future” (112)). Some chapters engage in a faux-Socratic dialogues which are meant to address some of the readers’ concerns; others do not. The six analytic terms are not well-defined and are stretched too thin. The lack of cohesion that seems to me to be the hallmark of the book forces me to wonder if my six summaries above would be even close to the summaries other readers might give.

Looking beyond all of that, though, the Sizers have produced a work that deserves reckoning with. Their vision, although obscured, is a powerful one. They want to see students and teachers working together in small schools to build a strong, reflective, value-conscious community. Their major thesis that schools are places where morality is inculcated in the youth is solid, and their contention that this morality comes through in everything from the quality of the school building, the type and amount of homework, the design of the curriculum and homework, the structuring of the day, and countless other minutiae that we tend to overlook as having a moral overtone. In other words, values are embedded implicitly everywhere and in every action. To finish off the title, the students are watching…  and taking away from everything. (We’re dealing with culture, here, and culture is everywhere.)

One of the wonderful aspects of this book is the internal dialogues and actual “representative” dialogues – from both the student and teacher perspectives – that appear from time to time. The two given in bluffing, from a student and a teacher’s perspective who don’t have enough time to complete their responsibilities, and the discussion among teachers about who should win department prizes in “sorting,” are especially striking. These dialogues don’t gloss over the complexity of teaching and learning; they don’t come neatly boxed with a “and the moral of this is” bow neatly closing the discussion. The Sizers know well how to convey the thoughts and emotions of students and teachers alike without making them caricatures of themselves. The outcome of this dialogue is an acknowledgement that there are no easy answers and no archetypal teachers and students. Instead, we are all contextualized individuals working under some broad set of common constraints.

Although they would never subscribe to “one” best school – they recognize that values change as times change – the Sizers do return to a number of qualities that good schools have: ongoing and thoughtful reflection and dialogue about community norms and values, more time for students to engage in true intellectual inquiry, a personal knowledge of each student as an individual learner, and a safe place where students can feel like they belong.

Writing a book like this inherently presents a difficult problem for the authors. Readers who pick up a book which outlines a problem in the educational system want more than a description of the problem – they will be hunting for a set of concrete solutions. At the same time, concrete solutions are precisely what no author can give because teaching and learning, cities and schools are such local entities that no global prescription can provide a panacea.

I wasn’t able to stop the question (okay, frustrated exclamation) – “so how do we do this!”  – from repeatedly coming to mind every time I encountered a sentence like “all the people involved have to think about the issue, both in the abstract and with regard to the immediate details” (15). How can we get a whole bunch of people to think concretely and abstractly about some issue? Another: “Belonging is something that every adolescent should expect at a school… We should shove ourselves into her life” (98). Shoulds, have tos, and oughts, but no concrete mechanisms to do these things.

But to read the book without being able to get past this unanswered question is to miss what the Sizers are attempting to do, and is to miss their central point. Being able to suspend this question – and know that there are so many different schools with so many different teachers and so many different students around the country which can give us a whole host of ideas on what might work in our own classrooms and in our own schools – the frustrations of this book give way to a promise that the Sizers ask us to make: actually, consciously consider the value systems we create and engage with in our school, and try to change them if there are no coherent ones.



  1. The six analytic terms are not well-defined and are stretched too thin. The lack of cohesion that seems to me to be the hallmark of the book forces me to wonder if my six summaries above would be even close to the summaries other readers might give.

    This made me laugh, and I suppose in the following I’m going to sound like an annoying know-it-all, but – most educational literature shares these traits. You haven’t acquired a credential yet? Reading educational texts when you have any background whatsoever in analytic philosophy (which must to some degree have been part of your history-of-science background) is frustrating in perhaps the way engineering texts are annoying to pure mathematicians (not that I know what the latter is like; just have heard real math people complain): There’s the lack of definitions, the unstated assumptions, the apparent arbitrariness of categories, the lack of discussion of those limiting cases and counterexamples that in other academic fields are what we look for first… I think you’re approaching the text in the most constructive way possible, figuring that the text can say something valuable about the real, messy world even though it isn’t all that intellectually satisfying :)

    Huh, reading this comment again, it’s sounding so obnoxious I should perhaps not publish it, but – what the heck.

  2. Hi H,

    You don’t sound like a know-it-all and I’m really glad for your comment! Umm, talk about sounding like a know it all — I’m writing about gerunds and analytic categories?! Next time I write a book review, it’s going to be colloquial.

    I did get certified in Massachusetts five or six years ago during my last year in college. My certification program was new and streamlined to one year and what we read in the courses was pretty lame. I can say with certainty that those readings were useless. I think the phrase I read somewhere along the line, “ed lit is a mile wide and an inch deep,” seems pretty accurate from my very local viewpoint.

    But as you said, my training in history has taught me to read really critically — tear apart assumptions and deconstruct a text into a finite set of arguments which can be evaluated alone and then together. That aspect of it was very mathematical. It’s all about evidence, clarity, and the theoretical framework the author either consciously or unconsciously agreed to work in. Those are some key structural pieces that the historical community (and mathematical communities) agree to evaluate when they approach a text.

    It is somewhat disconcerting to me that something like ed lit doesn’t share those same values? (Okay, maybe it does; I’m making wide assumptions based on the few things I have read, and years ago.)

    And I think what you said I said but in a better way (“the text can say something valuable about the real, messy world even though it isn’t all that intellectually satisfying”) is spot on.


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